Learning from History? The 1975 Referendum on Europe
May 23, 2016
Close examination of the events leading up to the Iraq War 2003 and detailed analysis of the decision making process by Professor Vernon Bogdanor FBA CBE http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-iraq-war-2003
Britain held her first national referendum in 1975 - on whether we should remain in the European Communities, forerunner of the European Union, which we had joined in 1973. The result was a two to one majority for staying in. Party attitudes were almost the opposite to what they are today. The Labour government favoured staying in, but the party in the Commons and in the country did not. The Conservatives were enthusiastically for staying in. The nationalists in Scotland and Wales favoured leaving.
The referendum was not held solely because the Labour government sincerely wished to discover the views of the British people, but to paper over the cracks of a divided party; nor did the two to one majority indicate widespread popular enthusiasm for Europe. Britain was at that time, economically, the sick man of Europe. One of Britain's European Commissioners, Sir Christopher Soames said that it was no time to leave a Christmas club, let alone the Common Market! In addition, there was considerable deference towards the pro-European political establishment - Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Edward Heath. Neither of these factors are present today.
Populist politicians such as Tony Benn and Enoch Powell tried to stimulate a grass-roots nationalist movement against Europe, such as had defeated the pro-Europeans in Norway in a referendum held in 1972. Such movement did not materialise. Could it do so today?
Are there any lessons to be learnt from the 1975 referendum?
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website: http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-iraq-war-2003
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